WHITEFISH, MONT. — At a glance, Montana would seem to be reliable red-state territory: It voted for Bob Dole for president in 1996 and twice, by large margins, for George W. Bush.
Yet Democrats have made major inroads in Montana in recent years, nowhere more than in this fast-growing resort town in the northwestern part of the state, where the main street boasts an eco-friendly fashion shop ("Look Good -- Feel Good," a sign out front says), an organic dry-cleaning business, a sushi bar and a Sotheby's International Realty office.
Democrats made key gains in the Flathead Valley in 2004, winning a state Senate seat that helped give Democrats control of that body for the first time in 10 years. And Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat with a mint farm in the area, was elected governor.
There are still plenty of conservative voters here, but those sorts of Democratic gains have turned the Flathead into a crucial battleground in the hard-fought U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Conrad Burns and his Democratic challenger, state Senate President Jon Tester. And they may also help explain why Tester has been slightly ahead in recent polls.
Burns, 71, a three-term incumbent heavily damaged by his links to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is working furiously to close the gap. On Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney came to the Flathead Valley for a fire-up-the-faithful rally on Burns' behalf, saying Republicans would reject "resignation or defeatism in the war on terror." President Bush is due in Burns' hometown of Billings today for a similar event.
The Republican Senate campaign committee said it would pour $300,000 in ads into the Montana market in the closing days of the campaign. Other groups have launched anti-Tester ads as well, one depicting him as a tax-and-spend "Brokebank Democrat" who is out of step with conservative Montanans.
Tester, 50, a third-generation wheat farmer, has countered with his own heavy advertising, some of which features the popular Schweitzer explaining why he supports Tester. But the governor adds, with a laugh, that he will never get a flat-top haircut, Tester's trademark.
The challenger also has taken pains to say he supports gun rights and cutting the deficit, an appeal to conservative traditions here. But if Tester pulls off a win Tuesday, it may also be because of support from people like Jennifer Walker, a 27-year-old Michigan transplant who works in a wilderness teaching program here for at-risk children.
Walker said she loved Montana as much as any native -- and, she said, "I don't get the impression that Burns really supports Montana at all. He seems like a creature of Washington, D.C."
Fred Cerra, proprietor of Fast Freddy's, a home-repair business in Whitefish, agreed. "Burns needs to go. It's time," he said. "The first time he ran" -- in 1988 -- "he made a big deal about term limits and said he'd be there for only two terms. Now it's 2006, and here he is running for a fourth."
Indeed, Tester has hammered away at the been-there-too-long refrain in his case against Burns, who received nearly $150,000 in donations linked to Abramoff and his clients -- more than any lawmaker.
But though many people seem open to the notion that it might be time for a change, that does not automatically translate into support for Tester.
"Normally, I'd agree with the idea that fresh blood is better, but not in this case, when the alternative to Burns is so poor," said Richard Newbury, a property sales consultant. "A vote for Tester, for the Democrats, that's probably a vote to raise your taxes."
And other voters said they appreciated Burns' strong stance against same-sex marriage and abortion.
"I think when you're talking about family values, Burns is more likely to uphold that," said Margaret Horvath, an insurance underwriter.
State Sen. Dan Weinberg, a Democrat who won here narrowly in 2004, said that he believed Republicans and a "ferocious strain of right-wing politics" once dominated the district but that their strength had dissipated over the last decade.
"A lot of people have moved in here from all over, and they've brought a lot of different values with them," said Weinberg, adding that many did so for the quality of life and proximity to natural wonders such as Glacier National Park.
Democrats can win, he said, by talking about healthcare, education and other "public interest" issues.
In remarks at the Majestic Valley Arena just south of here, Cheney invoked the controversy stirred this week by Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, whom Republicans accused of insulting U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Of course, now Sen. Kerry says he was just making a joke, and he botched it up," Cheney told the crowd of about 1,000 at the vote-Republican rally. "I guess we didn't get the nuance. He was for the joke before he was against it."
Most voters seem to have made up their minds about the Senate race well before this or any other late-campaign development.